Let the fitness class come to your neighbourhood


Betty Brand

With what we’re learning these days about the health benefits of exercise, getting into a fitness program may well be on the “to do” list of many an older adult this fall – though a good number of these people aren’t likely to enroll in one. Perhaps because they can’t find a class geared to older adults, or don’t have transportation to get to one; perhaps they see cost as a deterrent, or the need for special clothes or equipment. Or perhaps they have arthritis or some other ailment which limits what they can do.

Yet the good news is that such training is within reach, thanks to a program for older adults called Stepping Up With Confidence, managed by a non-profit organization, the Active Living Coalition of Older Adults of Manitoba. Sue Mackenzie, Arlen Jones and Andrea Bedards have each for about 10 years been part of the strong team that educates, supports and encourages volunteer leaders of these fitness classes.

Sue and Adrien have together trained hundreds of these “peer leaders”, as they’re called, in Manitoba. Andrea has written and updated the program’s resources as new research and training techniques became available.

All three women are involved in the program because it offers a positive response to the concerns that commonly deter older adults from obtaining fitness training. Participants attend fitness sessions led by other older adults in their own community, who give them the information, encouragement and support they need to get fitter and healthier as they age.

Sue and Arlen point out that accommodation is key, and the peer leaders are trained to work with participants of varying abilities, ages and health concerns, such as chronic pain, arthritis or limited mobility.

The pair talk with animation about one of the most significant benefits of the program: it helps older adults stay fit so they can live independently in their own homes and not have to rely on others for help. Strength and fitness also help grandparents keep up with and enjoy their grandkids. They are able to go up and down the stairs more easily and confidently, carry their own groceries, rise from a chair and walk across the room to get a cup of coffee. Exercise reduces the likelihood of falling; it can also improve memory and slow down dementia.

Another important benefit? It gives people an opportunity to socialize; they come to again feel they belong and are valued. Some class participants say the classes give them a reason to get up and get dressed because they have a place to go that day.

As peer leader co-ordinator, Sue Mackenzie organizes the training sessions for the volunteers, and gives these people support and encouragement. Her other role with ALCOA involves community presentations on a range of healthy living topics, where she employs her knowledge as a former public health nurse.

Arlen Jones, a retired high school physical education teacher, is the volunteers’ “leadership facilitator”, providing these volunteer leaders with ongoing education and support, an offering that helps build their confidence and keeps them engaged.

Arlen retires this fall and Andrea Bedard will take on a new role as Stepping Up master trainer, “training the trainers” who will then train the volunteer peer leaders. Andrea teaches courses in health and wellness and in areas of physical activity at the University of Winnipeg, with a particular focus on older adults.

She will also train a new group coming into the program – mentors – who will do follow up work supporting the volunteer leaders and ensuring they have all the information necessary to lead classes. Mentors are required to have an active older adult certification from the Manitoba Fitness Council or to have completed university courses in aging.

Mentors, like the peer class leaders, are older adults, usually 50 years and older, male or female, and so can easily relate to the people taking the classes.

People volunteering to be fitness class leaders in their building or community receive two days of peer training, covering such areas as warm up, cardiovascular activity and flexibility, along with information on the benefits of exercise and on overcoming the barriers that prevent older adults from being physically active. Training is held in locations convenient for the community participants involved. There are usually three training sessions annually in Winnipeg and three in rural Manitoba, training 90 to 100 people.

Representatives of seniors’ buildings, groups or communities in Winnipeg and rural Manitoba can make arrangements with ALCOA to attend a Stepping Up information session. Sue says once communities get this information a volunteer often comes forward ready to take training and lead the fitness classes. Failing that, ALCOA can help them find a leader.

For further information, contact ALCOA at 204-632-3947, toll-free at 1-866-202-6663, or email jevanchuk@sogh.mb.ca.

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